FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Does the world really even need electric cars?
In the global battle against carbon emissions, carmakers have made considerable progress in recent years boosting fuel efficiency of their internal combustion engines thanks to gadgets like turbochargers, industry officials and analysts said.
Although it may be an odd-sounding name for a green technology, the turbocharger raises fuel efficiency levels by up to 40 percent and is now included in 75 percent of new cars in Europe. That could rise to nearly 90 percent by 2015.
They are far less common in the United States, mainly due to Americans' aversion to diesel-powered cars, but that is expected to change soon in an era of strict fuel economy standards.
"The turbocharger is a green technology in the sense that it's helping cut emissions and raise fuel economy," said Craig Balis, vice president for engineer at Honeywell Turbo Technologies, in an interview with Reuters. "It's a critical component to get more fuel efficiency out of the engine."
While the mention of turbochargers might have once conjured up images of loud, powerful engines, they have in the meantime become a tool of choice for cutting carbon emissions.
A diesel engine fitted with a turbocharger can go 40 percent further and a gas engine 20 percent further on a litre of fuel. The turbocharged 2012 Ford Explorer, for instance, gets about 23 miles per gallon compared to 20 mpg for the naturally aspirated version, Ford says.
"Emissions regulations in Europe, the United States and worldwide are a driving force for cleaner, greener vehicles and that's a great landscape for turbocharging," said Balis. "We're confident about the continued evolution of combustion engines and the growing role turbocharging has."
The focus on electric cars and low-emission vehicles at the Frankfurt Car Show has been intense this year with pretty much every manufacturer touting their plug-ins or plans to take the plunge into the brave new world of electrification.
But industry officials and analysts say electric cars will have only a small sliver of the market even by 2020. Doubts abound about prohibitively high battery costs, infrastructure issues, range anxiety and the size of the electric cars' carbon footprint when power comes from fossil-fuel burning plants.
What is the point of charging a battery with electricity produced from a coal-burning power plant?
"Consumers are being naive to think they'll be able to go out and buy an electric car now," said Christoph Stuermer, a car industry analyst at IHS Global Insight research institute. "People want them but they're not really ready for the mass market."
NO SILVER BULLET
Pierre Gaudillat, a policy officer at the Transport and Environment lobby group in Brussels, said turbochargers are not the "silver bullet" in the battle against CO2 but agreed they are an important device to reduce emissions.
"They are one answer but not the answer," he said. "It's one of the main strategies carmakers are using now -- downsizing. Smaller engines with a turbo that squeeze out more power."
So does the world really still need electric cars from a CO2 point of view?
"That's a valid question," said Gaudillat. "The answer is: maybe not. Turbos are a no-brainer for cutting CO2 because the efficiency gains are really quite significant. In the near term we don't really need and can't count on electric vehicles to deliver the CO2 savings. Maybe not until about 2030 or 2050."
Honeywell (HON.N), the world leader whose turbochargers are now in about four out of every 10 new cars with the device, has helped raised fuel efficiency in carmakers such as BMW (BMWG.DE), Volkswagen (VOWG_p.DE), Renault (RENA.PA), Porsche (PSHG_p.DE), Chevrolet (GM.N), Fiat FIA.MI, Ford (F.N), Mercedes, and Opel.
Balis said the Chevrolet Cruze, a four-door sedan, is a sterling example of how turbochargers help deliver enough power to a small 1.4 litre engine to make it attractive to consumers. Turbochargers are only in about 10 percent of new U.S. cars but that is expected to double in the next five years to 20 percent.
"The Chevy Cruze is a mainstream vehicle in the United States," he said. "But a few years ago you couldn't imagine such a small engine on a U.S. car. But now it's happening thanks to the turbocharger and doing well."
Turbochargers help increase the air entering engines. Costing a few hundred euros, turbochargers cover their added cost with fuel savings within about 18 months, according to Luca Zerbini, head of Honeywell's strategic marketing.
As Balis speaks about the potential turbochargers have to further cut emissions in the next decade, the question arises about whether turbochargers will contribute to fuel efficiency being improved so far that electric cars will be, from a carbon point of view, scarcely any better?
"If the total impact of CO2 is calculated, you realise the internal combustion engine is not so bad and that at the pace it's going with the help of turbochargers, it's still a very competitive technology and will be for a long time," he said. "We're confident that this path has a long way to go."
(Reporting By Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Mike Nesbit)